Human rights activist Nadia Murad to receive O’Connor Justice Prize from ASU

January 27, 2020

Nadia Murad, the acclaimed Yazidi human rights activist who founded a global initiative to advocate for survivors of violence and genocide, has been named the sixth recipient of the O’Connor Justice Prize.

The award, administered by the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University, was established in 2014 to honor the legacy of the school’s namesake, retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. It recognizes those who have made extraordinary efforts to advance rule of law, justice and human rights. photo of Nadia Murad Nadia Murad, the acclaimed Yazidi human rights activist who founded a global initiative to advocate for survivors of violence and genocide, has been named the sixth recipient of the O’Connor Justice Prize. Download Full Image

“I am grateful to receive this award and to be included among the prestigious past recipients of the O’Connor Justice Prize,” Murad said.

The 26-year-old is a member of the Yazidi community, an ethnoreligious minority in Iraq. Yazidis have faced centuries of persecution and were targeted by ISIS militants in a campaign that began in 2014. Murad was among the thousands of women taken captive. ISIS murdered six of her brothers and her mother. She was held captive before escaping and eventually resettled in Germany as a refugee.

She became a voice for survivors, writing a New York Times bestselling memoir, “The Last Girl,” and founding Nadia’s Initiative, which is dedicated to rebuilding communities in crisis and advocating globally for survivors of sexual violence.

In 2018, she became the first Iraqi and Yazidi to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. She was a co-recipient with Congolese advocate Denis Mukwege for “their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict.”

She advocates throughout the world, meeting with global leaders to raise awareness of ISIS and its genocidal campaign against the Yazidis. Nadia’s Initiative works to persuade governments and other international organizations to support survivors of sexual violence and to invest in the sustainable redevelopment of the Yazidi homeland of Sinjar, Iraq.

She said prestigious recognitions such as the O’Connor Justice Prize help bring awareness to her causes.

“As with every award I receive, this prize symbolizes a continued global awareness of the plight of Yazidis and survivors of sexual violence and the ongoing need to work to end both the genocide of my people and sexual violence in conflict,” Murad said. “I hope the global community will take up their responsibility to recognize the Yazidi genocide, protect women and invest in efforts like those we undertake at my organization Nadia’s Initiative — to rebuild the Yazidi homeland of Sinjar and invest in the healing and development of the Yazidi community."

Nadia’s Initiative also takes aim at inaction, warning world leaders that they must go beyond promises and effect change, or share in the blame. The organization says words without action inflict the same harm and suffering as the perpetrators of mass atrocities and sexual violence.

Among the specific projects Nadia’s Initiative is spearheading in Sinjar: building a new hospital; rehabilitating hundreds of farms that were burned or destroyed by ISIS; building a new school and rehabilitating destroyed schools; providing water, sanitation and hygiene services; and working with the U.S. State Department to remove thousands of land mines. The organization also teamed with human rights lawyer Amal Clooney to bring to court the world’s first prosecution of international crimes committed by ISIS against Yazidis.

Murad will be presented with the O’Connor Justice Prize in a ceremony on Feb. 15 at the Omni Scottsdale Resort and Spa at Montelucia.

She is the third Nobel Peace Prize winner to receive the honor. Previous recipients of the O’Connor Justice Prize are:

• Inaugural recipient Navanethem Pillay of South Africa, the former U.N. high commissioner for human rights. She was honored for her fight against apartheid, as well as her championing of international human rights.

• Ana Palacio, the first woman to serve as the foreign affairs minister of Spain. Member of the Council of State of Spain and former senior vice president and general counsel of the World Bank Group.

• Jimmy Carter, the 39th president of the United States, for his humanitarian work since leaving office. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 for his efforts to find peaceful solutions to conflicts, advance democracy and to promote economic and social development.

• Anson Chan, the former chief secretary of Hong Kong. Known as “Hong Kong’s conscience” for her decades of devotion to social justice and democracy, she helped oversee the transition from British control in 1997.

• FW de Klerk, the former South African president who led the dismantling of that country’s apartheid system and co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize with Nelson Mandela in 1993.

Nicole Almond Anderson

Director of Communications, Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law


ASU helps answer high schoolers’ top FAFSA questions

Since the Benji chatbot launched Oct. 1, more than 9,000 users have turned to it for answers about FAFSA

January 27, 2020

When the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) opened on Oct. 1, a resource for Arizona high schoolers was born. Benji the chatbot, a collaboration between Arizona State University and community and educational partners throughout the state, has been the friend with whom more than 9,000 users have consulted in the past few months to receive answers 24/7 to questions about how and why families should fill out the FAFSA to receive funding for higher education.

The Project Benjamin initiative, named for the money ($100 bills) that filling out the FAFSA can save a family, is a $1 million grantee of the Schmidt Futures’ Alliance for the American Dream competition. All funded projects were charged with using artificial intelligence and data science to either increase the income or decrease the expenses of 10,000 middle class families by 10% by the end of 2020. Project Benjamin partners include College Success Arizona, Achieve60AZ, the Arizona Commission on Postsecondary Education, Helios Education Foundation, Mesa Public Schools, Maricopa Community Colleges, Be A Leader Foundation, AzCAN and AdmitHub.  Young woman using a smartphone Download Full Image

The way Project Benjamin is tackling the challenge is by helping Arizona families access federal funding that is already available but is underutilized.

Heidi Doxey, project manager at College Success Arizona, said that annually $69 million in Pell funding for Arizona students is left on the table because no one applies for it, and the average federal funding award in the state after filling out the FAFSA is just shy of $10,000. That’s the tip of the iceberg in terms of federal and institutional aid that’s available; but it’s only available to students who fill out the FAFSA. 

Since the average middle class Arizona family makes about $60,000 a year, taking advantage of the average funding award would increase families’ income or decrease educational expenses by well over 10% by just filling out that crucial form, and the technology will utilize students’ and parents’ prevalent use of mobile devices.

“The chatbot is something we think a lot of students will utilize and will be a great tool for both middle income families and also across the board. And that’s key, because the only way to access federal aid and institutional aid is through FAFSA,” Doxey said.

But the FAFSA can be intimidating to complete. Some of the most common questions Benji has received so far are “What is an FSA ID and where do I get one?”

An FSA ID is a username and password that students and parents need to visit a different site to generate. They both need one to cosign the form. It’s a confusing step and is, unfortunately, said Doxey, the first one.

Other common questions include “Where do I find FAFSA?” or “Where do I start?” or questions about the immigration status of the student or parent or whether parents without a Social Security Number can fill out the form. 

Doxey said a huge part of the appeal is that Benji is an approachable way to ask these questions.

“People are concerned, and Benji is confidential,” Doxey said. “They don’t have to go to a counselor. … You can text this robot, who automatically responds with the correct answer.” 

And if Benji doesn’t know the answer? He’ll find out and the answer will be added to his “brain” and will become accessible within his knowledge base for the next inquiry. Benji also can send notifications about relevant events and deadlines customized based upon who the user is: students, parents or educators.

That is one reason why Abraham Valencia, a senior at Westwood High School and a FAFSA peer coach for the school, likes the chatbot. “I like Benji. ... It’s a project still, and they have done a really good job with the AI and how it grows with the number of questions you ask,” he said.  

The Project Benjamin team shares the same statewide goal as the Arizona FAFSA Challenge, which is to ensure that at least 52% of graduating seniors complete the form in 2020, which would be an increase of 5% over last year. 

So far, 14 school districts have signed on as partners to promote the Benji chatbot tool and work to move the needle on FAFSA completion among Arizona high school students: Queen Creek, Mesa, Scottsdale, Marana, Maricopa, Peoria, Glendale, Phoenix Union, Florence, Gilbert, Higley, Chandler, Tempe Union and Yuma Union.  

There is a lot of momentum around FAFSA completion among educators, and Benji has been a welcome tool to meet students where they are. Interacting with Benji doesn’t require anything more than a text message: Try it out by texting 602-786-8171. 

A lot of my students work right after school and do not have a lot of time to stop by our office and seek FAFSA help, so I just give them Benji’s card so they can ask questions on their own time,” said Bryan Pisetsky, Marana High School college and career counselor.

“They find this super convenient, and I think it is a large part of the reason our number of FAFSA completions has increased by about 5% compared to last year at this time,” he said.

School districts have also been spreading the word about Benji through peer mentors, marketing, counseling and events. At Mesa Public Schools, college and career coach Ben Fisher said they’ve jumped up 10 percentage points in completion in two years and are eager to build on that success with 27 peer coaches, about four seniors at every high school, who are trained to promote and support their peers to complete FAFSA. 

One of our objectives for our peer coaches is for them to use relevant technology to support students. One of those technologies is Benji ... A few of the peer coaches have said that they pull out their phone regularly and ask Benji a few questions and that Benji has directed them to the right place in order for students to complete their FAFSA,” Fisher said. 

Fisher hears from students about the convenience and the barriers that Benji helps overcome. In Mesa schools, he said, it might be immigration status, or it might be students who are going on religious mission trips after high school and may not think the FAFSA is relevant to them, even though students can sometimes defer aid or scholarships for use when they return.

“For students who are college bound, it is breaking some of those barriers that are put up financially or even nonfinancially, just helping them get through that process,” Fisher said.

“A student who may be on the fence because of money may not realize how much money they can receive through the federal government through grants; when they fill out the FAFSA and see that there can be a switch to being college bound,” he said. 

FAFSA completion not only opens up access to funding; it’s also tied to academic enrollment: 90% of high school seniors who complete FAFSA attend college directly from high school. The emphasis on both short-term income for families and long-term economic opportunities through education is part of what makes Project Benjamin so unique.

“Project Benjamin is already having a catalytic effect on students and families,” said Sylvia Symonds, associate vice president for Educational Outreach and Student Services at ASU. “Leveraging technology along with our collaborative partnerships, we are now able to scale FAFSA completion in Arizona. These efforts will open the door to economic opportunity for thousands of families.” 

FAFSA applications are open now. For funding in the 2020–21 school year, complete your FAFSA as soon as possible; the last day to apply for funding for 2020–21 is June 30, 2021.

Hannah Moulton Belec

Marketing content specialist, Educational Outreach and Student Services